Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Semitic World and Assyrians

In another corner of the blog world, I allowed myself to be drawn into a pointless argument over the issue of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict forgetting the golden rule about internet arguments: never bite the flame-war bait.

Anyway, this post germinated because someone used the term "anti-Semitic" in that exchange, and I realized yet again how much ignorance there is about the history and composition of different ethnic groups in the Middle-East among many of us.

In many parts of the world, the term "anti-Semitic" is bandied about as exclusively meaning anti-Jew without much thought as to its correct meaning and application. The term is a misnomer, because in its correct application it should apply to all Semitic people, more specifically, Semitic language speaking people including Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jews, etc. The correct term should be "anti-Judaism", but "anti-Semitic" is overwhelmingly and incorrectly used. Here's Britannica's take on it.

In the post, I decided to write about a Semitic language speaking people, with whose history I'm a bit more familiar, why, I shall tell you in a minute. First, how many here can refer back to their ancient history lessons in school, and remember the discussion of ancient civilizations of the Mesopotamian region?

Let me go ahead and tell you what I was taught about it. I do recall being taught about the Sumerians, and the Babylonians found mention as well, perhaps mainly due to Hammurabi's Code. Perhaps the Assyrians and the Akkadians were discussed, but I honestly cannot remember. As abruptly as they had made an appearance in my life, the Sumerian gods, and King Hammurabi disappeared, and in my understanding the ancient Mesopotamians had been entombed in their relics and ruins, with little relation to contemporary Middle-East.

Till I met this friend of mine for the first time. The usual trivial banter:

TM: So where are you from?

Friend: Iran

TM: Oh, you're Persian.

Friend: No, I'm Assyrian.

TM: Ummm....from Syria then?(quizzical look on her face)

Friend: No, Assyrian.

TM: Hmm.....

Friend: Do you know about the Babylonians?

TM: Oh sure!! (not falling asleep in ancient history class can pay off)

Friend: So my ancestors were from Mesopotamia and were the great rivals of the Babylonians.

TM: (Trying desperately to remember whose kingdoms the Babylonians were pillaging, but only the names Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar pop out. Damn you Nebuchadnezzar, must you have such a quirky, memorable name?) *sheepish grin* I'm sorry, I don't think I know about the Assyrians. Tell me about them.

And so, over the years, bit by bit, my friend filled me with accounts of Assyrian history, ethnicity, religion and diaspora, albeit from his specific perspective as an Iranian citizen of Assyrian descent. And when I tried to find more information on the web, I found a tangled web of history, migration and geopolitics, somehow exemplary of the historical progression of the region we know as the Middle-East.

It all started in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present day Iraq, an area called Beth Nahrain (house of the rivers) by the Assyrians and Mesopotamia (meaning land between the rivers in Ancient Greek) by the Greeks. In the 1400 year history of the Assyrian state, there were moments of expansionary conquest, as the rulers campaigned as far as modern day Egypt on the west and modern day Bahrain on the east. There was also a bitter rivalry with the Babylonians, who subjugated them and were in turn subjugated by the Assyrians. After the death of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, the kingdom disintigrated rapidly and the Assyrian state ceased to exist in 609 BC. Details about the history of the Assyrian state can be found here.

Even though the Assyrian state was gone, there was still the matter of the Assyrian people and people claiming Assyrian descent, who were now to be found across the breadth of the territory of the erstwhile Assyrian empire. Everyone knows how ethnic Kurds are divided by the geopolitical borders of Iran, Iraq and Turkey. For the Assyrians, it's a similar story, as the region of their erstwhile empire falls between the four modern states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. There are Assyrian in all these nations, the majority being in Iraq, estimated to be between 1.3 million and 1.5 million. The ubiquitous Foreign Minister of Saddam Hussain's so-called al-Qaeda supporting regime was Tariq Aziz, an Assyrian/Chaldean Catholic.

Almost all contemporary Assyrians are Christians, and follow diverse sects of Christianity although a majority are followers of some branch of Eastern Orthodoxy. The ancient religion of the Assyrians was Ashurism, worship of Ashur, but they became the earliest ethnic group to convert to Christianity, and the first Assyrian Church was founded in 33 AD.

And this is where the Indian connection of the Assyrians comes in. If I have any Malayali readers, they would be familiar with the Syrian Christian community or the Mar Thoma Khristianis (St. Thomas Christians) of Kerala. They happen to be the earliest converts to Christianity in India and were converted by St. Thomas the Apostle, who came to India in 52 AD. Now in those days Syrian and Assyrian were synonymous, and a researcher on the Kerala Syrian Christians I spoke to in the past confirmed that "Syrian" does not refer to the name of the modern day country of Syria, but rather the ethnic group using Syriac in their religious liturgy, i.e., the Assyrians.

The language of the Assyrians is an interesting topic. Initially, they used to speak ancient Assyrian, an Akkadian language. However, with the growth of the Assyrian empire, another language gained ground and was sanctioned as an official lingua franca of the state. This language happened to be Aramaic, the language of the Aramaean people, which remained widely spoken in the region even after the fall of the Assyrian empire in 609 BC. One of the dialects of Aramaic was the language in which the most famous son of those lands, Jesus Christ (or Eshu M'Shikha in Aramaic) spoke and preached his message.

Present-day Assyrians continue to speak a language which is a form of Aramaic (also called Syriac or Assyrian Neo-Aramaic), however it is completely different from the old Aramaic of the Assyrian empire and the mother tongue of Jesus, though there are certainly many common elements. In fact, the Assyrians are one of the few living communities speaking a form of Aramaic. Being a Semitic language, it also has common elements with Hebrew and Arabic.

As I stated earlier, the trajectory of the Assyrian people is a reflection of the complex and tortuous history of the Middle-Eastern region. Many Assyrians were either killed or forced to flee their homeland in northern Iraq and North-western Iran due to the conflict with the Ottomans during 1914-1918, which depending on which side you are listening to, is either the Armenian and Assyrian genocide, or an uprising by the Armenians and Assyrians against the Ottomans (I'll be honest, I tend to believe that there was a genocide of ethnic Armenians and Assyrians). In recent years, after the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979, thousands of Assyrians have migrated to the West, leaving what had been their homeland for more than 3000 years. And the Iraq conflict has also led to many Assyrian/Chaldean Iraqis to migrate to the West from the Beth Nahrain, from whence their empire once sprang.

To conclude, I'd leave you with this:

Many of you must have heard the song Kandisa, sung by the band Indian Ocean, which is apparently a 2000 year old Syrian Christian hymn. Given that the language of the hymn has to be Old Aramaic, it is most probably the language that was spoken by Assyrians at the time.

I did ask my friend to try and decipher the song lyrics, but his knowledge of Syriac/Aramaic hymns is limited, and he also suspects that over 2000 years, the words have been considerably Indianized to the point of non-recognition by someone who actually knows Aramaic. For example, he told me that though he isn't familiar with the word "Kandisa" (according to Indian Ocean, it means "praise") but there is indeed a word "Q'adisha", which means "holy" (search for "holy" in this lexicon and scroll down).

So just as I was looking for more information on Kandisa, I stumbled upon this great transliteration of the Kandisa song, provided to the blogger Zimbly Mallu by a Syrian Orthodox person, and now it does look like Aramaic compared to what the Indian Ocean were singing.

I kept digging further, and finally found the source hymn, which happens to be an important part of the Syriac liturgy and indeed Christian liturgy in general, known as the Trisagion, and is unrecognizable in its "Kandisa" form:

Qadisha alaha, quadisha Khailathana. Qadisha la maiyoutha, ethrakhem 'ailaen

(Holy God, Holy and Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us)

Courtesy: Syro-Chaldean liturgy (scroll down to prayer before the Trisagion)

Here's the hymn being sung as liturgy in the Syro-Chaldean church (scroll to Qadisha alaha). Notice the pronounciation, Aramaic being a Semitic language, sounds closer to Hebrew and Arabic.

If you'd like to find out what contemporary Assyrian sounds like, a good introduction are the songs of Evin Agassi, an Iranian Assyrian singer, who sings with an Iranian Assyrian dialect. Notice anything unusual about his name? Yep, the reason why he shares his last name with the tennis champion Andre Agassi is because Andre's father Emmanuel "Mike" Agassi is half-Assyrian half-Armenian, and is also from the Assyrian heartland of Urmia in Iran.


Anonymous witnwisdumb said...

Ah. Very informative (and interesting) post. It is surprising just how many words are used incorrectly, often exclusively incorrectly.

For instance, I was surprised that many people seem to think that 'chauvinism' refers exclusively to male chauvinism, and use it as such. The ways in which language is used (and misused) often present some very interesting insights into how people think.

I've blogged a post along (vaguely) similar lines here.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

super research. thanks!

9:19 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

ps. kaddish. of course :-)

9:30 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Witnw, very true. If we look up the etymology of chauvinism, we have Chauvin and his excessive patriotism, not sexism as the origin of the term.

Tabula Rasa, thanks! Yes Kaddish it is in Hebrew and in Arabic, al Quds. My friend in the context of the current Israeli-Hezbollah conflict shakes his head and says "how did the conflicts of a bunch of Semitic tribes get so globalized".

10:42 PM  
Blogger Cheery Cynic said...

I hate to say this....but I have got to. (This is me staging an intervention, if you will) How is thesis writing coming along? :P (*runs for cover*)

2:05 AM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Cheery sweetheart, I switched majors. It's all blogology now :). But seriously don't be taken in by my overdramatic "digging" hyperbole, this post was written in under an hour. The information though had been passed on by E to me over the last 5 years.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Cheery Cynic said...

Bhains kee auntie! :D

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Hiren said...

Very comprehensive write up especially on assysrians. The only thing I remember from history is the river Euphrates and Tigris

10:04 PM  
Blogger nevermind said...

fantastic. some one needs to put this post up where it gets a lot more netplay. thanks for cogently summarizing something which have got me into countless arguments in the past few years.

3:16 AM  
Blogger Perspective Inc. said...

Very well reasearched and thought-out post. Made for a great read and was informative too!
And i agree, often we end up using words that we don't understand the meaning off fully and thats never a good thing!

12:05 PM  
Blogger Szerelem said...

really nice post! i have been reading a lot on the history of the middle east, persia and turkey and as you rightly pointed out the amount of ignorance there is about the region is simply enormous. The history, culture and politics of the region are extremely complicated and some of the simplistic arguments that are being brandied about on some areas of blogosphere are ridiculous.
The use of "anti-semetic" has been a pet peeve of mine for ages now. A muslim acquaintance of mine and i were once casually talking about the Israel Palestine conflict and in this context i mentioned how Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all Semetic religions - which was a great shock to him - and that hasnt been a one off experience!

oh, and Israel has broken its own call for a ceasefire. it just makes my clutch my head and groan. And this entire episode has only made my dislike for the Bush government increase by about a gazillion. The attacks at Qana yesterday were just, well criminal. It was heart breaking to see the pictures of so so many children dead. What does Israel hope to accomplish by this is very questionable. The Hezbollah is an enormously strong grassroot organisation. They are already helping people rebuild, providing water and medical aid and have a much wider reach than the aid agencies. They will probably end up getting more support. I understand that Israels geopolitical position renders it disadvantaged and they have been given the benefit of that for eons now. The Hezbollah was wrong no doubt at all and while i am not saying Israel should have just sat by and watched Israels reaction has been totally over the top. And dont even get me started on George Bushs talk about how this is Israels war against terror (i think in this context that metaphor is so out of place) and how democracy is important for the region (i am sorry but arent the Hamas and Hezbollah democratically elected?)not to mention the American media coverage (its disgusting - i swaer if you didnt know the actual numbers youd finish some reports thinking there were about the same number of casualties in both countries).
ok...i am terribly sorry for ranting but had to get it out. Oh and before i forget many many blog post are now drawing parallels between India and Israel...sigh...i clutch my head.

I lived in kerala for many years when i was young and even studied in missionary schools but didnt know about Asyrian connection until recently. btw, LOL! @ "Damn you Nebuchadnezzar, must you have such a quirky, memorable name?" - its SO true!! i always remember him and also the Hanging gardens from my history classes!

12:53 PM  
Blogger Bidi-K said...

thank you! so much of this i didn't know, and its all so well written.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Urmea said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

4:06 PM  
Blogger Urmea said...

T_M, its amazing how often I learn things I never knew about or thought about from your blogs! Thanks.

Oh and I also got enthused to read up about Urmia (it does sound so much like my name) on wikipedia - apparently it was the birthplace of Zarathustra - fascinating. Thanks again!

4:13 PM  
Blogger Purush said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Purush said...

Good research and very good writing. But the reason why “anti-Semitism” and Jew-hatred have got so intertwined is not because of unawareness of the origins, and existence, of other Semitic peoples but because, in Christianity, especially of the evangelical kind, Jews have been permanently tarred with the original sin of Christ-murder. Hence, for a devout Christian, and the use of the word “devout” being a matter of greatly differing interpretation, a Jew is the very definition of evil, unlike say a Turcoman, or Assyrian or Kurd unless he renounces Judaism and seeks penitence for this “sin”. Hence, most “anti-Semitism” is one with Jew-hatred and even, strangely, people of the Muslim faith (the current civilizational foes of the Christian West), most of them being of Semitic stock, escape this extreme opprobrium by the “true” believers of Christianity, towards the Jews. Other strands of Jewish history also get mixed into this unforgivable sin, and hence we have anti-Semitism which is purely used to denote hatred towards people of the Jewish faith.

Interestingly, evangelicals are suddenly warming towards Jews recently because of fantasies of naked spontaneous levitation . Perhaps Mel Gibson should share whatever he was drinking, over the past weekend, with these guys...

10:04 AM  
Blogger gammafunction said...

very very well written....a treasure trove of trivia

5:06 AM  
Blogger Essar said...

Wow Thalassa! I leave a much more educated person after this post!

.. and I must admit that I too always thought of anti semitism in the context of jews!

9:47 PM  
Blogger Essar said...

and OMG I read that rimi sen post- I can't believe she said all that! Looks like she's every bit the shithead I thought she was. Saddest thing though is hat in our country you can perfectly get away saying such things. God.

10:00 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Cheery, Bhains ki auntie ka itna naam lete ho, bhains ke uncle ko khabar ho gayi to?

Hiren, thanks. By the way, the rivers are called Purat (al-Furat in Arabic) and Diqlat (Digla in Arabic) respectively.

Nevermind, thanks.

Perspective thanks.

5:24 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Szerelem, on the whole, I find the American media and politicians very clueless about the Middle-east, something that was glaringly evident during the Dubai Ports controversy.
Which of course doesn't stop them from pontificating incessantly about what needs to be done there.

I'm sure there are many CIA operatives who have a much more nuanced understanding of the region, but they don't show up on TV, for obvious reasons. It was an ex-CIA guy who wrote Syriana, which I thought was one of the most realistic potrayals of the Middle-east in American media to date.

As for George Bush Jr. it's terrible that the man is such a diplomatic disaster in the Middle-east, considering that his father Bush Sr. was perhaps the most Middle-east savvy American politician of recent years. Bush Sr. fought a quick and entirely justified campaign to end Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, was respected and trusted by most Arab governments including Assad in Syria, and brought a much needed sense of balance in the US Palestine-Israel policy.

I can only imagine what the man must be feeling about his son, no wonder he spends all his time with Bill Clinton these days.

Bidi-k, thanks

Urmi, you are entirely too generous. And I knew you'd notice the Urmia connection :). The place, apparently is gorgeous, like it's namesake.

5:36 PM  
Blogger thalassa_mikra said...

Purush, I've heard that argument before, and it might be true for fanatical evangelical Christians, but I honestly think a lot of anti-Judaism sentiment in early Europe was entirely racist in nature. For most of the history in Europe, Jews were not considered white and this definition continued till very recently.

Nazi ideology describes the "otherness" of Jews in purely racialized terms, not theological.

Gammafunction, thanks!

Essar, thanks. Yes, the outrage against her comments seems to be coming mostly from outside the country. Sad, isn't it?

5:50 PM  
Blogger The One said...

That was a very, very good post.

In school I maintained an above average interest in history (never reflected in the grades though), and still love reading stuff such as this.

The history of what we know as the middle east is one of the most fascinating areas in the subject. From the cradles of civilization in the Tigris and the Euphrates valleys, to the current Israel : Lebanon spat (?)- so much history is being written there- I can almost imagine what books will read like a couple of hundred years from now.

Of course, the most fascinating bit is this- every night , when we turn in to sleep, we have witnessed history being made- its just that some times we know it, some times we don't.


11:00 PM  
Blogger Old Spice said...

Nice post - and sorry I'm late with the ocmment, been frantic with that work thing and my own dissertation lately. (Now finished and marked, so my blog may reignite itself at some stage soon.)

Re Eastern Christianity and the Assyrians, I found out quite a bit from William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain, where he follows the path of John Moschos, who was a 12th century Christian nomad, and interweaves it with the present conflicts.

On semitism, I'm glad to see that you identify Arabs and Arabic as semitic. In my years in the Middle East, Arabs never seemed to refer to themselves as semitic, for political reasons.

Good luck with the thesis writing thing. My 15,000 words on stamp duties in New Zealand in the 1860s is the most painful thing I've ever done - but I'm thrilled it's over. Am now reading Vanity Fair again. May, June and July to catch up on.

8:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome stuff!

7:09 AM  
Blogger Hari Srinivasan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Hari Srinivasan said...

Brilliant dude! really appreciate your blog... I had also been trying to get a translation of the song for sometime..

7:45 PM  
Blogger Neha said...

Quite historical and knowledgable blog. keep it up. i came looking for kandisa and found gud info on assyrians as well. thanks !!

8:21 AM  
Blogger Lejit said...

very nice information u got here....pretty convincing...being a syrian mar thoma christian i feel proud of people like you.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous M Mani said...

Thank you for this! I just saw INDIAN OCEAN performing, and I being of Syrian Christian heritage in Kerala became very very curious when the band was explaining the history of this song. I appreciate you doing this research, I am glad some part of this mystery has been solved!

10:37 PM  
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9:42 PM  
Anonymous Salauddeen said...

"St. Thomas the Apostle, who came to India in 52 AD"

Just how big an ignorant idiot are you?

Even Pope Benedict the 16th agrees that St Thomas never went to India.

The Syrian Christians came to India in the 4th Century CE seeking refuge from persecution by the newly-minted so-called Roman CATHOLIC Church which was trying then to destroy all non-conforming Churches.

1:39 PM  

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